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The Pennsylvania Turnpike Smithsonian, 1980


By Phil Patton

A quick way from here to there was also a frolic

Novelty and delight for a nation of motorists a half century ago, the Pennsylvania Turnpike presaged the vast national Interstate System

It is the most powerful image among postcards that half a century ago helped romanticize the Pennsylvania Turnpike: a night view of "The Turnpike's Picturesque Midway Inn and Service Station at Bedford" on "America's Dream Highway." The big fieldstone building, home of Esso and Howard Johnson’s, has been turned romantic by gauzy cones of light. In front, gas pumps stand like little red sentinels with haloed heads. In the sky, the clouds are tinged by the rays of an invisible moon that has drifted beyond the somnolent green ridgeline.

All the postcards of that day are suffused with the most romantic light: either moonlight bathing the bridges of the turnpike, making the concrete slabs fairly glow and the grass median turn luminous, or an ambiguous twilight painting the curves and deep cuts peach and pink. Even in views of the tunnel interiors, overhead lights become tiny moons, afloat in clouds of their own suffusive illumination.

The tinters and retouchers who created these linen postcards also helped turn a 160-mile expanse of concrete, punctuated with 307 bridges and 7 tunnels, into the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Like the great (lams of the West, like the Golden Gate or George Washington bridges, like such skyscrapers as the Chrysler or Empire State buildings, lionized in the 1930s. the Pennsylvania Turnpike stood in its early years as a monument to national pride.

The America of the '30s looked forward to the technogical future, sleek as those gas pumps at the Mid-way Service Station, fantastic as the "Magic Motorways" visitors encountered at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. But it also looked back, searching for identity, toward an American tradition as solid as the Midway Inn. For such a nation, the turnpike became a psychological rallying point amid depression at home and a kind of bulwark against the rumblings of war and fascism overseas.

Today, as it marks 50 years of traffic since opening on October 1, 1940, it is easy to forget the imaginative pill] of a mere highway, however advanced. The Penn-sylvania Turnpike was America's first superhighway: four solid concrete lanes divided by a median strip, with gentle grades and wide, banked curves, constructed on the limited-access principle-without stop-lights or crossings-its exits and entrances equipped with long turning and merging lanes. (it was a far cry from the 18th-centtiry "turnpike road," a highway maintained by tolls on cattle and wheeled vehicles.)

The physical highway has been bettered by any number of its successors. But none of them have ever matched the dreamlike quality the turnpike possessed; none of them have inspired such postcards.

In the imaginations of those who collect its memora-bilia, the dream highway, beyond the real highway, lives on. Peggy Stapleton used to collect tolls; today she collects turnpike cards and other ephemera Her feeling for the pike is, in a sense, a miniature version of the public's. She has a fond childhood memmoyy of her family's Sunday drive to Midway for dinner. Now she collects for her children and grandchildren. The turnpike has persisted as a vital memory.

Neal Wood, Chief Bridge Engineer, works beneath a 1940 Pennsylvania license plate and a collection of commemorative plates, pennants, ashtrays and other turnpike souvenirs. There are several Polaroids of decaying bridge piers. Wood's job is to repair the over-passes that can be repaired and replace those that can . t.

Driving the pike later, I saw what he faced. The overpass bridges, gently arched. Art Deco inspired, are brown and in places crumbling, suggestive of classical ruins. For the driver, like a repeated architectural element deployed across time as well as space, they give a rhythm to the road.

Although the turnpike's backers correctly boasted of its "all weather" drivability, early cards included no winter scenes. But when I drove it in April, late snow swain in little swirls across the concrete slab, frosted the ir(@(,s by the edge of the guardrails and clung to the raised reflective letters of the signs.

To understand the turnpike's "all weather" importance you must not only drive it but also drive its predecessor, Route 30, part of the Lincoln Highway, which winds through the mountains between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. That road rises sometimes as much as nine feet for every hundred horizontal feet, impassable for trucks in heavy snow.

Despite repavings and improvements, the turnpike today looks remarkably as it did half a century ago. To the sides, beyond occasional intrusions of mobile home developments, the hilly fields, the barns and their silos turn into Christmas card scenes in winter. Boulders jut out of banks in the great rough cuts that sometimes suggest the American West. The promise to ban bill-boards on the right-of-way and to block any on adjacent land with plantings of trees and shrubs was quickly forgotten. An early photograph shows a Mail Pouch tobacco ad on the side of a barn. I passed one such ad, surviving today.

The westward course of the turnpike roughly followed old Indian trails where Braddock and Washington ventured during the French and Indian Wars. The Alleghenies were a historical barrier to the movement west, and all sorts of schemes were devised to conquer the ridges. The most ambitious came in the 1880s. William Vanderbilt's South Pennsylvania Railroad, one of the most elaborately planned civil engineering projects of the 19th century, was designed to pass through a series of massive tunnels. It was Vanderbilt's bid, aided by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Oliver, to challenge the Pennsylvania Railroad. But, watching events from New York, J. P. Morgan saw a rate war coming, saw investor confidence sinking--and intervened to stop it. Workers laid down pick and shovel and walked away. The half-finished tunnels, which had cost $10 million and 26 lives, filled with water.

In time, however, as the story goes, they were to inspire the even more ambitious idea of an "all weather tunnel highway" in the fertile mind of one Ed Flickinger, a city planner who had played in these tunnels as a child. and of his friend Victor Lecoq, a member of the Pennsylvania Planning Board, the agency charged with long-range planning and job creation. Together, in the early 1930s they advanced the idea of completing the railroad tunnels and incorporating them into a superhighway running from Middlesex, west of Harrisburg, to Irwin, east of Pittsburgh. They enlisted the important support of truckers, led by William Sutherland of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, and began promoting the idea to the State Legislature in 1935.

It was the era of the New Deal and great civil engineering projects putting men back to work. "Thousands of Jobs to Be Created By Tunnel Highway Project," blared Highway Builder, a state publication. It would be a safe road, too: "Tunnel Highway-Greater Safety." The publicists of the turnpike plan skillfully manipulated the imagery. To put the tunnels to use again offered an appealing populist image of a beneficent, technocratic government fixing up wreckage left by the robber barons.

The tunnels, too, could be seen against the background of the time as an implicit promise of the light at the end of the tunnel of depression, a nation guided .'through the night with the light from above." The illumination of Irving Berlin's lines seemed indistinguishable from the moonlight of the postcards.

There had been four-lane roads before. There had been limited-access roads, including the Bronx River Parkway, the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut and the Arroyo Seco Parkway, which was to become the first part of the Los Angeles freeway system and which also opened in 1940. But none had such scope. And there were other inspirations for the superhighway, from a different tradition and vision of roadbuilding: Hitler's autobahns and Mussolini's autostrada.

From the very beginning it was clear that practical economic arguments for the highway would be over-shadowed by military and patriotic ones that spilled over into raw idealism--if not outright national chest beating. In the July 1940 Highway Builder magazine, Charles M. Upham of the American Road Builders' Association painted an astonishing vision: "This rich and productive nation will be like the 'promised land of honey and gold,' when the belligerents abroad tentatively settle their differences.... Our country will be enviously looked upon and coveted by the conquering lords of war. America has wealth, culture, power! ... Our coastlines are the frontiers of a civilization. We are the custodians of Shangri-La."

All this came as a prelude to a warning of the nation's military vulnerability-a situation that "arming roads" was to remedy. "Good Roads are Good Weapons," said Highway Builder.

The effect of superhighways on national pride, power and economics had been dramatically proved in Germany, where Hitler personally led workers, picks and shovels laid across their shoulders like rifles, to break ground. The autobahns too had been a project to create jobs (although later it would be charged that prisoners of war were put to work on them as well). But above all they facilitated military movement.

Not everyone in this country shared the urgency of arming roads by building a superhighway to the tune of $60 million. "You have to remember," says Dan Cuepper, author of a new book on the turnpike, "how many people thought it would never work."

Even the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads predicted that only 715 vehicles a day would pass through the Turnpike's toll gates. Bankers and investors were the most skeptical. Without financial backing from the State of Pennsylvania, whose constitution required a referendum for any indebtedness of more than $1 million, they wanted nothing to do with the Turnpike Commission’s bonds, which were to be retired and the tolls eventually removed.

But there was interest on the part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, eager to find job-creating public works projects. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation backed the project and eventually bought $40.8 million worth of the commission's bonds. The public Works Administration added an outright $26 million grant. Not by accident was it stipulated that the highway must be "substantially completed" by the end of June 1940, the month that the PWA was scheduled to expire.

The Pennsylvania Legislature had authorized the turnpike in 1937, but not until late in 1938 did work actually begin. The owners of the sturdy barns and houses along the route were independent folk, disinclined to sell a single acre of the "land of honey and gold." Sometimes their reluctance was expressed by the aiming of shotguns at commission surveyors.

During construction, the commission was careful that its efforts were not hidden from the world at large. An extensive photographic record, including the images with which the postcard makers began, was compiled by the turnpike's official photographers, notably one Jean Schwartz. Schwartz's car, parked on the shoulder, crops up in his pictures like Alfred Hitch-cock's rounded profile in those signature film cameos'

I spent an afternoon looking at Schwartz's remark-able photographs, some of them prints, most only negatives, each in its brown manila envelope accompanied by a card telling where and when and at what he aimed his Speed Graphic-recording dust rising from the highway as graders rumbled along it, catching a great earth scraper ranging into pastureland like a belated triceratops. Among his images was one strikingly similar to the postcard of Midway at night. It had been taken in full sun, with attendants manning the pumps. The retoucher had removed the people, added the moonlight and turned day to night.

The commission found itself with just 20 months for actual construction. The work was accomplished with near-military urgency. Some 15,000 workers attacked the job simultaneously along the road's length, some-times working as many as three shifts a day, at times by floodlights powered by gasoline generators. The wet spring of 1940 slowed work on the turnpike as the Nazi blitzkrieg rolled across France.

In April it was announced that Esso (Standard Oil of Pennsylvania) had offered the best bid for the gasoline concession at Midway and other service plazas along the turnpike. To run the restaurants Esso, in turn, went to Howard Johnson’s, which had adopted the slogan "On All Important Highways." Howard Johnson himself inspected the facilities and decided to gamble that the turnpike would become the most important highway of all.

Collecting tolls presented additional problems, Finally, a system was devised adapting IBM's already famous punchcards. Thousands applied for toll-takers, among them PhDs and former bank vice presidents. Through June. as France fell, work moved toward completion. 'Tire July deadline of "substantial" completion was met, but work continued. The restaurant at Midway was ready, juke box in the lobby, postcards al. ready on their rack and poised for sale. The toll plazas were finished: dramatic functionalist architecture, ' heir enameled blue, angled compartments sheltered by great overhanging canopies that the commission, with sure showbiz instincts, called "iiiaicltiees."

In early August, to prove the highway’s military utility, the 108th Field Artillery of the Pennsylvania National Guard went on maneuvers, "defending" against a fictional attack on Bedford. Later that month, the commission invited 175 VIPs--Senators, Congressmen, Cabinet members, lobbyists and contractors-on a tour of the new pike. They began from the Hotel Hershey near Harrisburg, then piled into a 93-car caravan and dashed along the pike at dizzying speeds to make a lunch date at Midway. By evening, they were dining in the posh Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh. The highway was ready to open.

For the ribbon cutting, FDR 's attendance had been promised and, says Dan Cuepper, all the little towns along the way waited in eager anticipation for the day that each knew would be the biggest in its history. But a scheduled July 4 opening passed, as (lid one set for I.abor Day. Between ground breaking and completion, the governor's chair went from ' the Democrats to the Republicans. The Republican members on the five-man Turnpike Commission were in a position to prevent the ribbon cutting from turning into a political rally for FDR.

With each day interest costs were building and tolls were being lost. Finally, giving the public less than 12 hours notice, the commission announced the pike would open at one minute past midnight, October 1. Dozens of cars lined up hours in advance. On their car radios people could have heard Edward R. Morrow reporting from London on the Blitz. Some were returning from the World's Fair in New York, its second year overshadowed by the war, where they might have seen the future "Magic Motorways" sponsored by General Motors. GM would run an ad showing those multilane magic motorways and praising the turnpike: "The highway of tomorrow, here today."

When the clock struck 12, the first to take a ticket at Carlisle, the easternmost toll barrier, was Homer D. Romberger, a local feed and tallow dealer. Tolls were $1.50 I or the full 160 miles, $2.25 for the round trip.

The road was an immediate sensation--so much so, that by Sunday October 6, traffic jams several miles long built up at the exits. In the first two weeks, an average of 10,000 cars a day paid their tolls. The turnpike shortened Greyhound's Pittsburgh to Harrisburg bus schedule from nine hours to five and a half. Within a year after its opening, commission officials were urging an expansion.

People were driving on the turnpike not to get somewhere but just to drive on it. Families-like Peggy Stapleton's-would take a Sunday drive to picnic by the roadside or even, the tales have it, on the grassy median. Or to dine at Midway, which took its name from its location on the pike and had become as festive as a carnival midway.

There, or at the small lunch counters, drivers would find Howard Johnson’s famed 28 flavors of ice cream, "frankfurts" in their little squared-off buns and card-board holders, fried clams "sweet as a nut." Upstairs at Midway was a dormitory packed with steel-pipe bunks for 38 truckers, a lounge complete with radio and pinball machine, and a separate lunch counter.

The modern highway inspired motorists to look more closely at the nature around them. "Cool woodsy stretches abound," proclaims one postcard caption. One of Peggy Stapleton's favorite cards is number PA 149, showing not a bit of the actual turnpike but a deep forest of dogwoods, their pinks and whites and greens turned up several notches in hue by tinters. Ordinary folks were inspired to near poetry. "We ar-rived safely . . . the Highway was beautiful with its canopy of stars and its many lights," reads the message on another card.

Driving would become an esthetic experience. With its divided lanes, removal of grade-level intersections and limitation of access, the turnpike promised to remove 90 percent of the causes of accidents. The road was designed so that the straightaways could be negotiated at 102 miles per hour and the curves at 90. But within days the high speeds showed something else: that, as Fortune magazine noted, the turnpike was "the first American highway that is better than the American car. . . . It is proof against every road hazard except a fool and his car."

Tires weren't built for the speeds being reached on the 12-mile straightway near Carlisle. One blowout led to the first accident. Within three weeks came the first fatality. On October 19, Arthur B. Turner, age 66, of Bethlehem, died when his car skidded and flipped over between the Irwin and Donegal interchanges.

The governor had at first asserted that the statewide 50-mile-per-hour speed limit should apply to the turnpike too, but officials simply ignored him. For half a year there was no limit. But by April 1941 it was clear that there would have to be one: 70 miles per hour.

The turnpike taught another lesson about super-highways. "Highway hypnosis," the tendency of a driver to lose attention, fall asleep or "velocitate"-unintentionally speed up-was a hazard that grew from long straightaways. Future turnpikes would be devised to provide variety, gentle curves to hold attention, and changing perspectives.

After Pearl Harbor speed limits were dropped nationally to 35 mph except for military and other essential vehicles. Jean Schwartz's photographs show women replacing men as attendants at the Esso stations. With gas and tire rationing, passenger traffic declined, to be replaced by truck and military traffic. Sunday picnics in the median were forgotten.

After the war the bright sunshine of prosperity replaced the moonlit vision of the superhighway. Other states began building their own turnpikes, most of them wider and more comfortable to drive. By the late 1950s metal guardrails were going up on portions of the turnpike. The ten-foot strip of grass where early patrons had picnicked had proved dangerously narrow.

In 1956 came the Interstate System, of which the turnpike would become part-the oldest part, inasmuch as it had been conceived 20 years before the system existed. The turnpike grew, with extensions to the east opened in 1950, to the west in 1951. In 1956 it reached the Delaware River and a bridge connecting it with the New Jersey Turnpike. This last linkage marks a symbolic end: connection to that least romantic of turnpikes seemed to drain away forever the special magic of the original superhighway.

"Once it became hooked in to other roads," said Neal Wood, "it became just functional:" The tinted linen postcards gave way to crisply detailed and unromantic glossy color photographs. Finally, turnpike souvenirs vanished completely from the shops at Midway and the other intersections. It was no longer a sight to see; it was just a highway.

But the turnpike had changed the land it traversed. It took traffic from the rival Pennsylvania Railroad and created an economic boom around King of Prussia and Valley Forge. Within two decades, empty fields were filled with offices, labs and light industry. No-where, however, were the economic effects more clearly illustrate than in Breezewood, a tiny town at the intersection with 1-70 that has become the "City of Motels," flaunting a floating electric collage of logos, letters and hypnotically flashing neon arrows.

In 1981 the turnpike carried its two billionth vehicle. From the commission headquarters in Harrisburg, a fortresslike structure with a marble lobby, officials preside over new construction projects, 2,022 employees and 238 dump trucks. One of the most recent projects, the second Lehigh tunnel, involves shooting concrete into the newly cut bore to stabilize the roof and eliminate the need for a steel superstructure.

The original bonds have long since been paid off, but with new ones issued to pay for expansion, the promised abolition of tolls continues to recede. Ten percent of the highway is resurfaced annually, so that every decade essentially brings a new turnpike.

Slipping away too is the ideal of the federal highway trust fund that built the Interstates. Gasoline tax revenues were to have supported them and made tolls unnecessary. But as modern cars get better mileage, trust fund income, based on fuel consumption, has decreased. Rebuilding is long overdue on many portions of the system. More and more there is talk that to pay for it, we will see the imposition of tolls.

Today, Howard Johnson’s is gone, the stone buildings it once occupied accented by awnings of the universal reds and oranges of a variety of fast-food chains. Inside- ate clean, well-lighted places, where truckers-bearded, sweatshirted, wearing the caps of teams whose games they listen to on the radios in their cabs-drive beeping video games.

Trucks own the road at night, straining up the grades, then heaving themselves down the other side. Car headlights make the trailers seem suddenly flimsy--shimmering curtains of foil, dotted with the cheap costume jewelry of their running lights. Even though other major east-west Interstates such as 1-80 are both free and more advanced in design, truckers like the turnpike because it is better maintained and because the service facilities are right on the road.

Late one night I pulled into Midway and maneuvered my car as close as I could to the viewpoint of the magic postcard of Midway-by-moonlight and paused for a while. Snow danced in the cones of light and drifted over the pavement, romanticizing the scene. For a moment the whole place stepped out of time; the looming fieldstone structure hovered free of contemporary franchising. Or so I imagined, until my eye slipped back to the sign informing me that today the big stone restaurant at Midway houses an Italian restaurant and a frozen yogurt store.

I pulled down the ramp and back onto the road, reminding myself, before my foot grew too heavy, that I was back in the age of the double nickel-55 mph. The superhighway that once promised 102 mph straightaways has today some of the stiffest speeding fines in the country.